Feds: Gang lured schoolgirls to sex trade

SAN DIEGO — A federal indictment unsealed Thursday accuses San Diego gang members of running a cross-country sex-trafficking ring that preyed on teenage girls from East County schools and used violence and drugs to coerce them into prostitution.

Twenty-two gang members and associates are charged with a racketeering conspiracy for their alleged roles in what was described as a lucrative operation, authorities announced Thursday. Most were arrested in a series of predawn raids.

About 100 victims, some as young as 12, were identified during the two-year investigation, officials said. Some girls were ensnared by promises of money and a lavish lifestyle, while others were forced through violence or threats to sell sex, according to U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. Vulnerable victims, such as runaways and girls from broken homes, were ideal candidates for recruitment, the court records state.

In one instance, according to the indictment, two defendants discussed on Facebook beating up a prostituted victim who got pregnant to get rid of the baby. Another victim had her jaw broken, the document states.

“These are girls who have their lives ahead of them, they look forward to this beautiful full life,” Duffy said.

“But those who exploit those dreams, they’re stealing the souls of these children and these young girls, and they’re doing so by crushing them with false promises, crushing them with physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual slavery — the kind of sexual slavery that leaves scars for a lifetime.”

The girls were recruited through social media, at parties and at various middle and high schools in the East County. On at least one occasion, Duffy said, a pimp tried to enroll an older, more experienced prostitute into a school to recruit younger victims.

The investigation, led by the Sheriff’s Department and dubbed “Operation Stolen Souls,” was kicked off by the rescue of a few sex-trafficking victims found attending an alternative school.

Investigators said school officials and parents helped by reporting red flags: girls coming to school with unexplained expensive items, frequent absences, bruising or other injuries, relationships with known gang members. At least one parent even reported seeing a daughter offering sex for money on a website, an official said.

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